How do I get over my ambivalance about relationships?
May 24, 2011 8:19 AM   Subscribe

How do I get over my ambivalance about relationships or should I? Can I?

Sorry for the length. I'm a mid-thirties male. In a few months it will have been two years since my last relationship ended (largely amicably because of "big life goal" sorts of things, despite how I sound talking about my ex in this question), which was seven years long. I have gone on one date since then—more than a year ago—and had a (very atypical for me) week-long fling with someone almost a year ago. Both were, in retrospect, not great. Well, the date was horrible while I was having it, frankly.

So almost two years since my relationship ended I've realized I still can't handle the idea of dating, being in a relationship, and after the fling even sex has lost its appeal. I get lonely, more than I'd like, but I don't see that as a valid reason to be with someone. I also don't want kids and don't have any particular ambition towards getting married for being married's sake. So my motivation is low.

But I'm tortured by this constant thinking about relationships. I'm not sure if it's being lonely or the idea that I'm missing out on something I can't have or being bitter or what. I almost feel like I'm feeding on not allowing myself to engage with women in any romantic sort of way. I actually have a profile on a dating site (which I can't really use anyways since I am not in a stable enough situation to date in any one place) but I just re-write my profile over and over, and look at the women, and cross them off the list one-by-one without even writing to them—NO one gets past my filter (makes the constant rejection of dating sites easier I suppose). I back off immediately if women "in real life" flirt with me, but it's okay anyways since no one is really that attractive to me for some reason. And I have this weird fantasy about how I'll run into my ex ten years from now in a grocery store and she has two kids and a husband and I'm still pitifully single, and I just say I was never in a relationship again after you because you ruined me. It makes it sound like it's all about her, but it's not; it's all about all women, who I have a certain amount of resentment of and distrust of and mostly FEAR of (I mean, only relating to women and romance—I have plenty of female friends, I get along great with women! But I don't expose this part of myself to them).

So yeah, you don't have to point out I'm angry, hurt but also afraid of intimacy, commitment...just afraid really.

This is all a problem but the actual, real problem is that I don't have the desire to change. I seem to be enjoying this state like I enjoy poking at a sore tooth; it hurts but it's some sort of strangely satisfying hurt. This is what I'd like you to address in your responses, please.

Objectively I think I'm fucked up, like I'm not really functioning normally, but not so much that I can't function well day-to-day. In fact, seriously, I'm probably happier than I've been in my life! But I think ideally I'd like to either be (in order of preference) 1) completely happy single, without needing to frame things in terms of women, relationships, and especially my *%#!ing ex; or 2) happy or at least comfortable flirting with women and dating and all that shit. However I can't get past my complacency to find a way to either of these options. I just don't want to grow old and die bitter. I don't care if I never date again, but I don't want to be a bitter asshole the rest of my life.

PLEASE NOTE: I am not in a place, physically or logistically speaking, where I can seek therapy right now. I was in therapy up until a few months ago and we did work on this but didn't make a ton of headway (see the above "not wanting to change" thing). Nevertheless I'm still interested in therapy, I value it, and will seek it again when I can, but in this question I'm looking for suggestions of things I can do outside of that (until I can go back in), ways to re-think my mindset, or experiences that people have had where they were in a similar place as me and got out of it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
This is all a problem but the actual, real problem is that I don't have the desire to change. I seem to be enjoying this state like I enjoy poking at a sore tooth; it hurts but it's some sort of strangely satisfying hurt. This is what I'd like you to address in your responses, please.

This may be because this state is, by now, familiar, stable, and safe. Starting a new relationship is always hazardous because you open yourself up, vulnerability being an important precondition to having a serious emotional relationship.

It sounds like something about your last relationship is still troubling you, perhaps. You say that it was "largely amicable" but that obviously doesn't mean it was easy for you; does that description mask hurt or negative feelings you have that are difficult to acknowledge for some reason?

Some people believe that phenomena such as depression arise in part due to a conflict between the lives we imagine for ourselves, internal narratives that guide our life courses, and realities that contradict those. Maybe consider your problems in these terms. Is this the life you imagined for yourself? Do you feel disappointed with how things worked out, and if so, why is that? You might need to make a conscious effort to reframe the way you think about what role relationships are meant to play in your life.
posted by clockzero at 8:35 AM on May 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

There's nothing fucked up about not wanting to be in a relationship. Let yourself feel normal about that; while you're outside of the norm, there are plenty of people out there who've decided to focus on other things and another group that should be focusing on other things (because they're miserable or they're making their partner miserable.)

In short, let yourself be who you are right now. You may, in the future, want a relationship, but there's no sense pursuing something which doesn't interest you right now for the sake of it.
posted by dflemingecon at 8:40 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you run into your ex in 10 years in a grocery store and she's happily married with kids, and you tell her you were never in another relationship because she ruined you - well, you're only punishing yourself by having that as a fantasy. She probably wouldn't care, and you wouldn't get a lot of satisfaction. If you run into her and *you* have an awesome life, then I can see the pleasure there (whether or not you're in a relationship), but if all you have to say is you're miserable and you blame her...

It sounds like you have the desire to change (or you wouldn't be poking at it and being unhappy and analyzing) but you don't have the desire to work for the change.

All dates and/or flings are not going to be awesome, actually a bunch of them will suck, and no one person is likely to fit every ideal of yours on paper. You get out there and meet people and spend some time with them, and if it clicks it clicks. Chemistry is an in-person thing, and relationships evolve and grow.

It does sound like it's all about your ex. All women are not like your ex. You distrust and fear because of a particular experience, and you don't have a valid reason (that I see) for extrapolating that to be true of all experiences.
posted by mrs. taters at 8:41 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

On the one hand you definitely have some important issues to deal with here, on the other hand you seem to be able to look at yourself and see your own problems and fears. That's tough to do so I give you credit for being able to do that. At the end of the day, it seems to me that you've been hurt by women, and probably close friends(male and female). So you keep your guard up at all times. You say your ambivalent about relationships, but really you're just avoiding them. You say you don't have the desire to change, but I think deep down inside you do have the desire to change, you've just dug yourself into such a deep hole you're not sure you can pull yourself out. But let me tell CAN change. And actually it's as simple as making the decision to make those changes. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to be in a relationship, or to have kids. But it seems to me you do want a fantasize about your X because deep down inside you know you've let her ruin your life. You have to forget about her. Get out there and start dating. Don't be so picky on the dating open to girls flirting with you....don't over analyze things...and stop enjoying the "drama" that is your life. You seem like the type of person who takes pleasure in sadness. That's not good. I would suggest surrounding yourself with people who have an optimistic outlook on life. Get rid of those who are negative. Think of dating as an adventure. Enjoy the process and not the results. MOVE ON from your X. She's gone. She's never coming back. You're the one keeping her in your life, not the other way around. I think that if you find another women or see that there are some decent women out there, it will change your mindset. I would also suggest finding a hobby or sport that makes you happy. It will get your mind off other things and bring you natural pleasure. Good luck.
posted by ljs30 at 8:43 AM on May 24, 2011

I know if I ran into an decade-plus ex that told me I was the reason the ex was continuously single I would have one thought: "glad I got out of that relationship when I did." You portray women as some sort of other and not just as people with individual differences. Stop categorizing potential romantic partners on this love/hate pedestal you've set up and just consider them people with which you might have a chance of connecting.
posted by ndfine at 8:53 AM on May 24, 2011

It makes it sound like it's all about her, but it's not; it's all about all women, who I have a certain amount of resentment of and distrust of and mostly FEAR of...
especially my *%#!ing ex
Also, I think you're wrong. It's about her. No other woman...hell, no other person, is your ex. Think of the biggest asshole you know who also happens to be a male. Do you automatically assume all other males are assholes because of that one guy?
posted by ndfine at 9:04 AM on May 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

This is all a problem but the actual, real problem is that I don't have the desire to change. I seem to be enjoying this state like I enjoy poking at a sore tooth; it hurts but it's some sort of strangely satisfying hurt. This is what I'd like you to address in your responses, please.

Yeah, I can relate. Mine was regarding a totally different topic, but I can relate.
You're feeling the comfort of justified anger: They hurt me! They abused my trust! I didn't deserve this! Look, just look at what they did! They fucked me up/over and if they (different they, but in rage you don't care) think I'm ever gonna submit to shit like that again, they're fucked up!

You've created a (dis)comfort zone for yourself that you're wallowing in. Yes, wallowing. The only way out is to get really serious about reining yourself in at the first sign. It's very like an addiction - in fact, considering the brain chemistry involved it is an addiction - and you're going to need some tools for dealing with it. There are some excellent books about anger out there, about surviving abusive childhoods/relationships. Not that I think your relationship was necessarily abusive! These books can simply provide some background for further understanding of your own specifics. I'll go rummage around in my bookshelves focusing on your situation, if you'd be interested.

But what ultimately helped me most was mental discipline. Sure, it sounds simple, but believe me it wasn't and isn't. Every time I find myself tending towards that path, I stop. Look at what I'm feeling, really examine it, but without judgement. Just feel it. Observe myself feeling it. Say okay, this is that feeling. I will feel something different, probably soon, but whenever, it will pass. Feel it, acknowledge it, and let it go. But you have to be consistent. It's not about repressing feelings, it's about not allowing them to control you and spread to other areas of your life. Once you've defused the knee-jerk, you can then explore the feeling and its history more dispassionately. Ultimately, you can try for forgiveness of yourself and others, bringing compassion into the mix. Because most anger about past relationships has a component of self-disgust and shame: how could I have fallen for that/allowed that to happen/etc?! If unchecked, this will absolutely lead to being bitter. And you are right, you really don't want to be bitter.
posted by likeso at 9:16 AM on May 24, 2011 [9 favorites]

I see that you say you and your ex separated "amicably," but then you still say angry things about her. And you apologize for that anger.

I suspect that the reason you're ambivilent right now is're not really letting yourself be angry, and there is a part of you that wants to. I strongly believe that the longer we try to suppress things like anger and upset and the like, and pretend they're not happening or tell ourselves we shouldn't be feeling that way or try to talk ourselves out of it, the worse it gets, because it just festers; and ironically, sometimes all it takes for a bad mood to go away is to just finally let go and HAVE it.

So I suspect that what's really going on is that you're trying to talk yourself out of being angry with your ex, because you think you're trying to be "fair" or "calm" or whatever; but that's just hanging in there and clouding your judgement. If you finally just said, "alright, dammit, I admit it, I hate the wench", that would help the anger start to metabolize -- and I have a feeling you'd feell a little better about other relationships once you get THAT out of your system.

But it's something you need to process, and I have a hunch you're not.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:20 AM on May 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

I suspect that the reason you're ambivilent right now is're not really letting yourself be angry, and there is a part of you that wants to. I strongly believe that the longer we try to suppress things like anger and upset and the like, and pretend they're not happening or tell ourselves we shouldn't be feeling that way or try to talk ourselves out of it, the worse it gets, because it just festers; and ironically, sometimes all it takes for a bad mood to go away is to just finally let go and HAVE it.

This. This this this!

Feel it, OP. Please just start by feeling it.
posted by likeso at 9:33 AM on May 24, 2011

You broke up "amicably" but are to this day referring to her as your "*%#!ing ex" ...

But you say it's not about her, and I believe you. I'm inclined to think that you prefer nursing your losses and enjoying the masochist pleasure you get from being a loser in this situation in your mind somehow, and are getting something out of imagining yourself showing hypothetical future-ex this hit you have taken and demanding some kind of reaction or acknowledgement of it. "See my suffering!" Then what?

I think this isn't about you and women so much as it is your aligning yourself with the idea you are defeated in a way that is both humiliating and perversely ennobling - and pre-emptively closing yourself off to anyone who could possibly help you not be this flagbearer.

Maybe this satisfies you like poking at a sore tooth, but to take your own analogy further, the only person who will acknowledge that is yourself, when you wake up one day with a suddenly scary and raging oral infection.

This isn't about whether or not one should be in a relationship or single to be happy. This is about letting go of the identity you've constructed around loss.
posted by sestaaak at 9:40 AM on May 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

For me, in most healing processes, there's a moment when I start to worry "what if I never stop feeling this way?" But I always have.

However to offer something practical, here are a few minor comments/suggestions:

I don't have the desire to change... enjoying this state like I enjoy poking at a sore tooth... some sort of strangely satisfying hurt

Your main worry is whether you'll ever change, and this is your main rationale for worry, it seems. Enjoying the feeling of wallowing in the pain is not inconsistent with the process of change. Isn't the yin-yang symbol partially an expression that any feeling taken to its extreme will change, that even in the depths of the black there's a seed of white?

It makes it sound like it's all about her, but it's not; it's all about all women, who I have a certain amount of resentment of and distrust of and mostly FEAR of

This part of your post is fascinating. It sounds like a door to a whole other landscape.... I'll just say that the book How to Be An Adult In Relationships talks about how sometimes, people will react to an event in their present life with all the weight of their childhood behind it. Applicable?

Last, how is your intimacy in your friendships? An event just caused me to see how safe I play it in communications even with friends. The book Difficult Conversations was my window into how much more of myself I could be sharing (mostly by how hard it was to apply its advice). On AskMe, Meg_Murry has lately been recommending Brené Brown. Brown's TED talk has some interesting things to say about how courage is the root of deliberate vulnerability, which is the root of intimacy. Even now, you could practice in your friendships.
posted by salvia at 10:09 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's nothing wrong with not being interested in sex or romantic relationships.

If you're lonely more than you'd like though, that is best addressed by going out and visiting with friends. Or by getting an affectionate, somewhat needy pet. Just try to step away from the computer screen more often.
posted by lizbunny at 10:26 AM on May 24, 2011

I'm still pitifully single

You are enough. On your own. Everyone is. People need to remember this.
posted by hermitosis at 10:33 AM on May 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

One of the things that stunned me about my therapist was that on the first session she told me that despite what I Thought I was saying about being perfectly happy never dating, she could tell that I deeply wanted to be in a relationship. I'm hearing the same thing from you that she did from me. Everybody wants to be loved. Let go of your fears and start admitting that.

You say you have lots of female friends. Start by telling them that you want to be in a relationship, and ask them for their help in meeting women. Date casually - only preemptively reject those who are related to you or obviously abusive.

Or you could keep rejecting all of the women on all the dating sites so that you can be the one doing the rejecting. While still getting no closer to what you want. Just saying.

Once you've told your friends that you want to be in a relationship and you want to work on that, go about creating a new identity for yourself based on all of the awesome stuff you can do (instead of the pain you're nursing). Even knowing that you want to be in a relationship, you can be thoroughly happy with your life if you're living it well.
posted by ldthomps at 11:55 AM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

largely amicably because of "big life goal" sorts of

Maybe that's the problem. Let's say that you broke up because she wanted kids and you didn't. (Maybe that is why, maybe not, but it seems likely and is the ultimate dealbreaker anyway, so it's a good example for this question.) I'd imagine that you are feeling pretty bitter about that. Like "oh, so close!" or "if not for this one stupid thing, we'd be together." It's a situation where you didn't end it because you hated each other, and you're not "supposed" to be mad, but you are. I'd be mad too. And who wants to go through that shit again? (Especially if your life goals problem is one that you are likely to run into again and again, as the being childfree example would.)

If you are single 10 years from now and run into her at the market and say it's all her fault you are single now, at best she'll not care. At worst she'll think you are a crazy person and be happy as hell to be away from you. So don't go there.

I hear you on the "I just want to be 100% happy single" thing. I think that is like shooting for nirvana though: not many people are gonna be able to do that. Even I can't do that and I have been trying for 90% of my life. It's extremely hard to do that against our own goddamned biology and society that is always pushing you to get partnered already.

I don't really have a solution to your problem. I have some similar issues myself and I have yet to figure out how to get over them, and I am in therapy. And I've been doing this longer than you. I just try to deal with life as it is now, assuming that no miracle dude is going to come along to change it. It's a lot easier to not date than it is to date and try to change my heart to like people I don't like, so I don't date. As for the bitter... I guess you just get used to it. Eventually, even if it takes a lot of years, it will mellow out some. And it will be less personally directed at your ex and more like "this is how my life is going, argh, but oh well."
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:55 AM on May 24, 2011

I would wager that there is little possibility of you (or your prospective partner) being happy and comfortable in a relationship until you get to a point where you can be comfortable on your own, in relationship with your self. You know all those dating profiles that say "no baggage"? This is exactly what they mean. You've got baggage, and it's full of old unwashed laundry from your last trip.

For now, you'd do better to focus on healing yourself, rather than rummaging through dating sites looking for someone else to heal you. That isn't anyone else's job.
posted by Corvid at 12:33 PM on May 24, 2011

You sound like me, except I’m an early-twenties female. Full disclosure: Was really in love with high school sweetheart, lived together, got engaged, broke up semi-amicably. 4 ½ years together. Then had semi-casual relationships and dates that went horribly wrong and consequently stopped trying. I’ve been asked out by three guys in the last year or so and turned them all down. I’m just not feeling it. People tell me not to be rude, to give people a chance, to do online dating, to date guys I’m not attracted to at first, to “get out there” and all sorts of platitudes constantly. Nope. Yeah, I get lonely. I don’t dwell on it though, and I’ve learned to identify the line between “wistfulness” and “starting to be in a really bad place.” Almost every time I’ve thought about dating it’s because I feel pressure to prove I’m desirable, because I want someone to go out on dates with, or because I’m having an existential crisis moment about wasting my youth and hotness. All selfish, bad reasons to do it, and I know perfectly well from actual experience that it would not end well and would hurt someone in the process. People in their lust to play Cupid sometimes say, “just try it! You never know! Overthinking! Magic happens! Blah!” But I know, from actual experience, that messing about casually with people’s hearts is no bueno for me. I’m the one who has to live with the guilt. I cannot just “stop thinking and fuck” so to speak. Maybe you can’t either.

And that works for me, and I find nothing wrong with it. There are still those rare people that I feel an instant connection with, enough to throw away the world and try it again. But so far, they’ve been distant or the stars have not aligned or whatever.

I think it is partly my ex, in that I really loved him. I know what love is, so messing around in the dark with people who haven’t experienced that it unappealing and feels exploitative. But it’s not that I hate him, necessarily, just that I’m waiting for the first guy that’s his match or better. It’s pretty rare statistically to strike out on the first go-round, so I’m pretty confident I can bank on the magic happening at least once more. And if not, oh well, I lost the gamble, I guess I can always settle later. (I suspect I won’t actually do this, but it’s a psychological trick to stop my obsessing)

You’ve got time. Since you don’t want kids, you’ve got the rest of your life. Even if you do want kids, you’re a guy and that gives you a little more wiggle room.

Trust yourself. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re right and the rest of the world is misguided. Decide definitively how to lead your adult life and then bear the consequences nobly, as much as you can.
posted by Nixy at 1:20 PM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

You sound depressed. If you can't do therapy, can you talk to your primary care doctor about considering antidepressants? Depressed people don't want to change, often, which is a symptom of the depression.

I also think your breakup hurt you more than you're willing to admit. You're going to have to deal with that, someday.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:21 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Examine the premise: you have accepted, hook, line, and sinker, that relationship-seeking is normal, and that since you're not doing it there's something wrong with you.

There's nothing wrong with you!

If you look around, you'll see a bunch of people on an energy-sucking relationship merry-go-round. Many go through the same scenario over and over again, learning nothing. What's desirable about that? Nothing. Deciding not to play for awhile is perfectly fine. You don't need to want to change. You're fine as you are.

Decide it's okay to be a person who is not seeking a relationship or sex. Once you've done that, put some focus on deepening your existing friendships to combat the loneliness. Volunteering works wonders for that too.

It took me a few years to get my head wrapped around the fact that I wasn't interested in having a relationship; we spend SO much time investing in the process that it feels kinda weird to stop, eh?
posted by goblinbox at 10:49 PM on May 24, 2011

I want to give you a useless answer, completely subjective, 'cause I figure no one else would give you one. I'll address it from the pov of someone who's female, and who has about your level of dating experience (maybe less, maybe a bit more) and is totally ok being single, but is a romantic. Also, I'm not bitter and I feel that bitterness is your real problem (as you said). I also speak as someone who's had experience with guys like you (secretly bitter loner 'nice guy' types), and has a soft spot for them. I'm not trying to project, but I'm saying that (if it matters), even if you don't change, some girls would probably like you anyway, whenever you're ready. It takes some effort to get to know those girls, of course. We're (often) shy too.

It's ok (could be great) to be alone. It's great to be together. It's especially great to be in love. Love is a wonderful beautiful thing that I'm going to subjectively say you're missing out on. Regardless of a 'relationship' or 'women', love is worth having in your life. There's a problem with viewing relationships as a commodity, as a lifestyle choice or a commitment, even. Supposedly it's all grown-up and stuff, but there's such a thing as being too grown-up. So this is your problem: you forget that life has magic in it. It's become too predictable and closed-in, and you think you can control it, control your future, etc. There's a shell, and it feels lonely to be trapped in it even when you've got nowhere to go and no one to reach out to. It's quiet, isn't it? Too quiet.

So how do you not feel bitter?

Forget about love. Try to embrace life. Embrace people as they are, those girls (and boys) who are your friends. Try new experiences. Forget about time-lines, where you're going, where you have to be. Try to do things that allow you to try different roles, be someone new. Open yourself to all these new places you live in, and just really experience those differences. Pay attention to your surroundings. Embrace the change in seasons. Think about a pet, like a cat or a parrot or even a fish. Buy plants, even, and resolve to care for them. Try more creative hobbies. Focus on the things you enjoy in life, whatever those are-- music, food, theater, ideas. Explore. Pretend you're not an adult and you're not 100% sure who you are is who you have to remain. Journal. Experiment with different sexual experiences, too, even if it's just fantasy (like porn, I mean). Think less about the past, no matter what. If you do, try to be positive-- like use it in a journal entry, or burn some photos, or compose a playlist for your ex or something. Try transforming your past into fuel. Think about it on your own, without a therapist-- meditate on it as if it's a story that happened to someone else. It's you, and it happened, but pretend it happened to someone slightly different. Not quite you.

No one needs 'a relationship'-- no one, not even the people who think they do. But-- and this, I 100% believe-- everyone needs love. Not everyone is ready, and not everyone finds it, and many people settle, and give up, and forget themselves and the parts of themselves that are the most innocent, and alive, and beautiful. But those are the parts of you that can love. That's why love is important-- not because it cures loneliness, but because it allows you to really be who you are, 100%, and allows you to believe you can be more than you are. Caring for someone/something in a pure and full way is so much of what life is about. I think adding 'romantic' love just makes it more of a family... but it can be a parent's love, too. Even a friend's love, but it's perhaps rarer that we find friends that mean quite that much to us. It can be divine love, too. You don't seem like that type, though I could be wrong.

The thing that makes many people ambivalent is (I think) extraneous: dating, sex, rules of engagement, letters, calls, cohabitation, courtship, etc. You have to act a certain way, or talk a certain way, or behave a certain way, and it seems like a lot of trouble. People have bad experiences and associate love with nagging, or arguments, or possessiveness, or pain or repression and miscommunication; a sense of pressure, disappointment, futility. If she wants X and you want Y, why bother about it? Why indeed. Easier to let go. Why bother with the responsibility to another person when you don't need to be tied to anyone?

But that's not love, that's just logistics. Meaningless. Pointless. Useless. Love doesn't care: it just exists. Just a feeling that fills you up, that overflows. It has no ties, only releases. It doesn't ask for anything, and only creates itself, and perhaps it creates you and recreates you as well. It's a creative process, a way of becoming who we are.

It seems like light-years from this talk to how you talk about women. But as long as you don't understand what I mean, you'll be bitter; as soon as you do, you won't be. It's that simple, even if it's not easy. To let go of bitterness, you need to let go of expectation, of pressure. Forget that love has a role to play in your 'everyday' life, that there are points to check off, determinations to make, hoops to jump through. Relax. Whatever it takes, relax. Allow yourself to dream, and remember who you were, or wanted to be, when you were a child or a young adult. What did you dream of? How did you dream? Who was it you wanted to be?

That is the person that can find love, and can be happy even if it's lost.
posted by reenka at 11:39 PM on May 24, 2011 [14 favorites]

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